INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-Cartoonist Gary Varvel was waiting in line to get an $80 unemployment check when he got The Phone Call in 1978.
Indianapolis News cartoonist Jerry Barnett was telling him to apply for an artist's position at the evening newspaper. Varvel needed the break. He'd shown his art work to Barnett and had landed a job at a weekly newspaper. He became the production manager, at $125 a week, and the owner let him draw a weekly cartoon. But the newspaper had shut down.
Varvel talked with Barnett, thanked him for the call and got back in line to collect his $80 check. At 21 and still living with his parents, he had a wife and baby and still needed the unemployment money. But he got the job and has been earning a check as a cartoonist for a third of a century.
He has risen to the top of a declining business, as a conservative Christian in an industry dominated by liberals with little regard for Christian faith. His Indianapolis Star cartoons get distributed to other newspapers and publications through Creators Syndicate. His work also appears in WORLD and on WORLDmag.com.
Lately Varvel is getting some praise from liberal quarters as he offers a subtle faith-based answer to the problem of poverty. He won the Robert F. Kennedy Award earlier this year for his cartoon series, "The Path to Hope," based on interviewing families that moved out of poverty with help from groups such as IndyReads, Science Bound, and the Shepherd Community Center. The series explored specific family poverty stories in Indianapolis and is online at garyvarvel.com.
In one series of illustrations he told how Curtis Adkins grew up in a broken home, sent from Florida to Indianapolis at age 12 to live with his grandmother. Assigned to a special-ed class, Adkins fell behind and at age 16 wanted to escape from school. Then through friends a door opened to attend the Indianapolis Christian School, where he got the attention he needed in small classes: Teachers realized Adkins had a different learning style, not a disability. Eventually he made it to college and now serves in his old neighborhood through the Shepherd Community Center.
Varvel mixes cartooning with a serious analysis of the causes and remedies for poverty. He's paid to be funny, but in real life he's not a stand-up comic. "He's real, he's authentic," says Shepherd director Jay Height. "He wins national awards, but he'll sit down with an inner-city kid and teach him how to draw."
Varvel doesn't dominate a room when he walks in. "He's not an overwhelming presence. He has a strength of humility," Height says. "A liberal might wonder how a conservative like him can be so compassionate. It's because he comes out of a root of faith, not out of politics." In appearance, Height adds, "He gives the appearance of a clean-cut conservative. He's just missing the sweater vest."
The cartoonist and his wife Carol have three children and attend Brownsburg Baptist Church west of Indianapolis. His son Brett, a filmmaker, says, "In his job he's supposed to make fun of people all day long. But when you meet him he doesn't come across as a comedian, trying to rip you apart. His job is so consumed with politics. But he is not consumed by it."
With his artistic gift and a touch of wit, Varvel has an opportunity to put a biblical worldview before a very mixed audience of Christians and atheists, conservatives and liberals, as well as newspaper readers somewhere in between. He finds that a little laughter can help bridge the gap with those who don't agree with his general perspective: "The main job I have is to make people think," he said. "I try to break down complicated issues into a simple image and express an opinion."
Varvel's faith in Christ informs his cartooning, yet he is not consciously thinking of a particular Bible verse every time he draws: "I don't see my job is to turn everyone into a Christian. I like to think of myself like a Joseph or Daniel in the Bible. They served secular leaders and God blessed them."
His pictures informed by the Bible can convey a point. On abortion, he recently showed a woman praising Planned Parenthood in one panel for saving her life: "Without Planned Parenthood I would not be here." In the next panel a baby in heaven notes: "Without Planned Parenthood I wouldn't be here today." On the gay marriage controversy he showed a man with several brides asking for a right to polygamy from a judge: "Your honor, since you redefined marriage, is there any reason why I can't marry more than one?"
Most of the time Varvel is more subtle about a Christian perspective, though he clearly gives views right-of-center and finds ways to defend traditional values and poke fun at cultural relativism: "You want to shine a light, but you don't want to stick a flashlight in their face," he says of the mixed audience of a metropolitan newspaper.
Varvel credits the old Mad magazine for inspiration for drawing at a young age. "Dad used to buy it for us," he recalled. "I don't think I ever read it. I learned how to draw caricatures from it." At a high school in Danville, Ind., he won a cartooning contest in ninth grade and started drawing for the school newspaper. He was surprised to learn that someone could earn a living by actually drawing pictures.: "I thought someone drew the cartoons for fun and had a real job on the side."
When he started in 1978 there were 200 full-time newspaper cartoonists: Now Varvel estimates there are less than 50. When young people ask him about such a career, he has some cautions: "I have to give them the grim reality-a lot of cartoonists have been laid off." But artists can find other ways to draw: "There are a lot of forms of cartooning-animation for a movie studio, for example. The opportunities to do what I'm doing were never very good, even when there were 200 of us."